Sometimes when you eat a certain food, you are eating a piece of history.
Take banh mi, for instance. It is a type of Vietnamese sandwich made up of an airy baguette with a cirspy, thin crust filled with various ingredients like cilantro, pork sausage, pickled carrots along with chilli and mayonnaise.
While the Southern Vietnamese call it banh mi or wheat banh (bread), the Northern Vietnamese call it banh tay or western-style bread.
This sandwich would not have come into existence in the first place if Catholic evangelisation and eventually French colonisation did not take place in Vietnam.
The arrival of Catholic missionaries in Vietnam
To know the origin story of banh mi, one must understand how Catholicism arrived in the country.
One of the first missionaries to arrive in Vietnam was the Jesuit priest Alexandre de Rhodes, who arrived there in 1624.
In 1650, he returned to Europe to advocate more bishops and priests to be sent to Vietnam as about that time there were already 100,000 converts.
At first, there was little to no resistance from the local government against Catholic missionaries.
Until in 1825, emperor Ming Mang of the Nguyen dynasty banned foreign missionaries from entering Vietnam.
The emperor subsequently banned Roman Catholicism. During this time, many French missionaries were persecuted, especially after the Le Van Khoi revolt (1833-1835).
The revolt had southern Vietnamese, Vietnamese Catholics, French Catholic Missionaries and Chinese settlers under the leadership of Le Van Khoi rising up to oppose the imperial rule of Emperor Minh Mang.
It took three years for Minh Mang to suppress the rebellion. Eventually, 1,831 people were executed and buried in a mass grave.
Minh Mang’s successor Thieu Tri also upheld the anti-Catholic policy, although his approach was not as aggressive as Minh Mang.
It is believed that the Vietnamese sandwich had already existed by that time since the word ‘banh mi’ was found in Jean-Louis Taberd’ 1830s dictionary Dictionarium Latino-Annamiticum.
With the news of the deaths of their citizens reached France, the French Foreign Minister Francois Guizot sent a fleet to Southeast Asia in 1843.
The aim was to support British efforts in China and at the same time fight the persecution of French missionaries in Vietnam.
Since then, the French conquest begun until they finally took complete control of Vietnam in 1887 with the formation of La Federation Indochinnoise.
Banh mi during French-colonised Vietnam
The French colonists brought along their language and food such as coffee, baguette and pate chaud during the colonisation of Vietnam.
At first, the locals could not enjoy French cuisine as they were too expensive.
French baguette in particular was a luxury due to the imported wheat at that time.
However during this period, the local Chinese were hired as chefs and cooked for the French.
They learned the skills to make French cuisine including the art of making bread.
Eventually, the Vietnamese twerked the recipe a bit by putting more yeast and water to make it lighter.
When the wheat import was interrupted during World War I, the local bakers started to be creative.
They began mixing cheap rice flour when making the bread.
Unexpectedly, the move made the bread fluffier, allowing the locals to afford to buy bread.
While the French loved to eat their baguettes with chicken liver or goose liver pate, the Vietnamese were not a big fan of these combos.
Thus, they started to make their own fillings.
The banh mi that we now know of today was founded some time in the 1950s.
With pickled carrot, radish, cucumber and cilantro as well as source of protein such as ham, pork, chicken or fried egg, it is now a whole new dish, different from its French origin.
Today, different eateries and stalls have their own version of banh mi.
Customers can even customise their own by requesting which ingredients they preferred to put into their bread.
It is definitely a must-try food when visiting The Land of Blue Dragon.
As author Mina Holland stated in her book The Edible Atlas: Around the World In Thirty-Nine Cuisines, “Banh mi are something of an edible reminder of Vietnam’s imperial past, fusing the bread of coloniser and fillings of the colonised. A banh mi sandwich is a fantastic route into Vietnamese food. It is both an introduction to the crisp acid flavours and a morsel of edible history.”